Making sense of the media
PhD student Heather Blackmore attended a Standing up for Science media workshop in June. Here she tells us why she’ll now be looking at the science news headlines with new eyes.
Have you ever read a newspaper article and felt the need to challenge the journalism or scientific content? Whether a scientist or not, I’m sure that you too come across articles that seem exaggerated in their claims or inaccurate in the way they explain research.
As a second year PhD student, I had become increasingly aware of how little I understood about how scientists and the media interact, particularly how scientists can handle media interest after publishing in well-known journals. That’s why I attended the media workshop, run by Sense about Science, in London on the 15 June.
Speakers included scientists, journalists and representatives from learned societies and Sense about Science. Discussions centred on topics such as what journalists want, why media portrayal of research goes wrong and what you can do if you spot bad science.
So what did I learn? My take-home message was simply not to be scared of working with the media. By being prepared, simplifying explanations of research and taking control of conversations, scientists can get their message across. These tips might sound simple but anyone who’s tried to write a ‘lay summary’ of their research knows how difficult it can be. One tip we were given was to briefly explain our research to a sleepy non-science savvy relative. It’s harder than it sounds, trust me, I’ve now tried it!
The most surprising outcome of the day was that my view on sensationalist media coverage has changed. Before the workshop I would cringe at crazy headlines and often not read the article beneath. But discussions during the workshop made me understand that headlines are intended to grab the reader’s attention, and aren’t necessarily written by the person who wrote the article.
I won’t be so cynical about the media now and I’m keen to work with the media if opportunities come up in the future. I now know it’s important to step outside the comfort of my lab and talk about my research to the people who fund it. I’ve realised that instead of working against us to spin a story, journalists are there to work alongside us.
Science journalists want to create an interesting, evidence-based article as much as scientists do, and scientists are just as responsible for making this happen. It’s important for scientists and journalists to work together to get science to appeal to those who might normally avoid it!
The Voice of Young Science Standing up for Science media workshops encourage early-career researchers to get their voices heard in public debates about science and are part-funded by the MRC. The John Maddox Prize for standing up for science, a joint initiative of Sense about Science and Nature, is now open for nominations.
If you’re an MRC scientist interested in talking to the media about your research — particularly if you have a paper which you are about to submit — please get in touch with the MRC Press Office on 020 7395 2345. We can give you tips for talking to journalists or even organise media training.